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Volume 31, Number 4July/August 1980

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The Frescoes of Amra

Written by Patricia Baker
Photographed by Vanessa Stamford

The plan was to visit Qasr 'Amra, an eighth-century limestone bathhouse - part of a hunting lodge - in Jordan's desert some 60 miles east of Amman. But there was a problem. How to find it? The little "palace of Amra," as its called, lies so far off the beaten track that few Europeans knew of its existence before 1907. Even today the unpaved trail is indistinct.

Still, we had to see it. Jordan, increasingly alert to its archeological treasures, had recently assigned a Spanish conservation team to clean the extensive - and daring - frescoes that decorated the inner walls of the baths, and to repair the plaster and the fabric of the building. So we searched until, luckily, we found a driver and an archeologist friend to guide us, and set out.

Until the Spanish team came, artistic knowledge of the frescoes was based almost entirely on the work of an Austrian artist called Mielich. Brought to the site in 1899 by the Czech archeologist Alois Musil, the first European to recognize the artistic importance of the 'Amra paintings, Mielich produced the drawings for Musil's book - which was to attract the attention of all those interested in Islamic art. Indeed, the book, together with a few later photographs, provided the basis for all theories and comments about the content and form of Arab art in the early Islamic period until recently.

Architecturally, Qasr 'Amra is relatively uninteresting. Only the bathhouse remains, an austere limestone structure, and there is none of the rich plaster and stone carving associated with other Umayyad palaces, like Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi and Qasr Mushatta. But the paintings are special; Arab physicians believed in decorating baths in bright, cheerful colors because, they thought, "a man loses some considerable part of his strength when he goes into a bath." To revive flagging spirits and "the three vital principles in the body, the animal, the spiritual and the natural," they advised that the walls of a hammam - a public bath -should be covered with pictures of hunting and fighting, of lovers and of gardens with trees and flowers. (See Aramco World, January-February 1978).

At the Qasr'Amra, the artists followed that advice enthusiastically. They covered the walls and ceilings with paintings. On the ceiling of the Qasr 'Amra preparation room, for example, there are charming naturalistic portraits of birds and animals framed in lozenges: a gazelle scratching its ear, a bear playing a stringed instrument while a monkey gaily claps his hands, with, here and there, the odd human figure or head, strangely out of place.

Elsewhere in that room, huge figures of men and women decorate the walls. Above the entrance doorway, from the audience chamber, the wall is covered with a scene as yet unexplained: a figure propped on one elbow gazes down on an amorphous horizontal form, a winged cupid hovering above. At first this strange shape was thought to represent a shrouded corpse - scarcely a cheerful illustration for a bath - but others suggest that it shows two figures, perhaps lovers, enveloped in covers.

Similar themes predominate in the rest of the room, and in the chamber next door. On the opposite wall of this dressing - or rather undressing-room, a shapely woman is shown to the left of the window, sitting in a pensive mood, chin in hand, a towel across her knees. A companion on the right, his back towards the visitor, looks longingly on. And in the tepidarium, the "warm" room, among painted plants and trees similar to those in mosaic at the Umayyad mosque in Damascus, more females decorate the walls, standing, sitting and reclining, all proudly displaying the physical attributes most highly praised in early Arab poetry. In the caldarium, or "hot room," however, bathers faced a startling change of theme; for at Qasr 'Amra, on the ceiling of the dome, they could look up at the very vault of heaven: a painted astronomical chart, one of the earliest known surviving on such a scale.

In this early vault of heaven the twelve radii do not emerge from the center of the dome but from the ecliptic North Pole, with the constellation signs arranged accordingly. And although only some 35 constellations now remain, such favorites as Ursa Major and Minor are still visible and the signs of the zodiac are incorporated in readily recognisable forms. Sagittarius, for instance, is shown as a centaur, his human torso turning back to draw his bow, the classic pose for the Parthian shot.

Interestingly, the order of the stars is reversed; they are depicted counterclockwise around the dome, suggesting that the eighth-century artist copied a drawing without realizing that the astronomical order has to be reversed for a concave hemispherical surface like the inside of a dome.

The hammam itself has a feeling of privacy, the rooms being no more than eight or nine feet square, and the wall paintings suggesting intimacy. But the main hall, from which one enters the baths, is the reverse. Every available inch of plaster is decorated: the walls, the two transverse arches and the three barrel vaults.

In the hall three themes dominate: work, relaxation and ceremony. Not surprisingly, though, the work element plays a minor role in the decorative scheme: it is seen only on the eastern vault of the hall and probably relates to the actual building of Qasr Amra: brickmakers, masons and carpenters—the latter operating a two-man saw of a type still used in Egypt today.

Below, more leisurely pursuits are represented. Athletes wrestle, exercise and fight alongside scenes of the hunt in full cry: wild donkeys racing, legs outstretched, heads forward and ears back across the length of the side walls, west and east. High up on the west wall, there is also a scene of the animals being corralled in a roped-off enclosure, the heads of the beaters with their torches appearing behind flags for a further touch of drama. At both ends of the east apse the hunt reaches its usual conclusion, with hunters on foot killing the animals at the north end and assistants skinning and jointing the carcasses at the other end. Although the scenes have strong links with Sassanian examples - such as the bas reliefs of Taq-i Bustan near Kirmanshah, Iran - the hunters at Qasr 'Amra are shown realistically, with bulging muscles, just like their counterparts on Rome's mosaic pavements.

The paintings on the arches are more leisurely still, with huge figures of females in sarongs holding plates or medallions above their heads, while musicians and dancers, with flying scarves, appear below. More entertainers are painted on the arch spandrels - a dancer with swirling tunic snapping her fingers to the music of lute and flute players - while, on an opposite spandrel, a woman sits languidly on a couch, reaching out to accept a diadem or floral wreath proffered by a cherub.

The dominant figure in this hall, however, is the famous bather in the center of the wall, stepping gracefully out of a small pool, dramatically placed between an athletic meeting on the right and the important"six kings" painting on the left. Although the six kings are of far greater importance to the archeologist, the bather very nearly obscures them.

At the time of Musil's and Mielich's visit, enough detail of the six kings painting remained to identify four of the figures: Roderick, the ruler of Visigothic Spain - whose inclusion dates the painting to about 710 - a Sassanian shah, a Byzantine emperor and the Negus, ruler of Abyssinia. Who the fifth and sixth figures are is unknown, but some have suggested that they may be the Chinese emperor, a Turkish or Indian ruler or even a governor of Egypt. Thus the painting would include the main temporal rulers of the known world at that time. But why are these kings depicted here - in the company of dancers and bathing beauties - in a little bathhouse far removed from any major administrative or cultural center?

The Spanish conservation team may have confirmed the answer. Before being cleaned, a reclining figure on the next wall was just a vague shape resting on a couch, with the Greek word NHKH (victory) just visible. Now more details can be seen and some observers think the figure representing victory - with the six kings on the abutting wall - symbolizes the supremacy of the Umayyad dynasty over its political and territorial rivals, or perhaps the entry of the Umayyad family into the circle of kings.

The paintings have also yielded some clues as to who used Qasr 'Amra, particularly the regal image in the center of the far south wall in which an enthroned man, with a halo around his head, sits under an arch. Below his feet, originally, there was a section of fresco (now in Berlin) showing fish, waterfowl and a boat complete with crew; while at his sides stood two attendants. The ceremonial quality of this painted scheme is made even more apparent by the rows of men and women, obviously members of the entourage, decorating the apse walls and the central vault surface.

This enthroned man then must be a portrait of the man who ordered the building of this little bathhouse, or who frequently graced it with his presence - a man who clearly saw himself at the center of his own world, controlling not only his fellow men but also perhaps the creatures of the air and of the sea; a man who surrounded himself with the kingly symbols of both the Byzantine and Sassanian Empires, and with images of pleasure and entertainment.

But who? At one time it was thought that Caliph Walid I built Qasr 'Amra: could it be Walid I? Probably not. The short prayer painted on the arch above the haloed head asked God's blessing on the "amir" or ruler, but one theory holds that it referred not to one of the Umayyad caliphs, but to an important member of that family, perhaps the heir apparent.

Either of two Umayyad princes would seem likely candidates: Walid II, who built Qasr Mushatta later, and Yazid III; each spent many years away from the administrative center of the empire before assuming the caliphate in 743 and 744 respectively. Both were renowned for their pleasure-seeking activities and Walid was particularly fond of evenings devoted to music and poetry during which he would sit "on the edge of a built pool, just big enough for a man to swim in." If delighted with the song or poem, we are told, he would jump in, inviting the performer to join him, and on one occasion his entertainers dressed as stars and constellation signs and danced - a detail that gives the astronomical painting in the Qasr'Amra caldarium an added piquancy.

On the other hand, Yazid III, before he became caliph, led a similar, if more restrained, life and was fascinated with the history of the Sassanian kings. This, and the fact that his mother was a Persian princess, could explain the strong Persian element in the Qasr 'Amra paintings.

What could be more natural than for such young men, eager to hold political power but both thwarted by their predecessor Hisham's long reign of 19 years, to establish and organize miniature courts of their own? Their days would not have been fully occupied with matters of state; presumably the empty hours would have been whiled away enjoying the favorite pastimes of hunting and other sports, and relaxing with friends in the company of entertainers. At the same time, the status of such a prince would have to be immediately apparent to any visitor, tribal chieftain or local dignitary. All these elements can be seen in this little bathhouse, and probably were also present in the rest of the hunting lodge.

Admittedly, the meanings of most of the compositions on the Qasr'Amra walls remain elusive for the present, but the borrowings from Byzantine and Sassanian imperial art are clear. History records that the Umayyad family consciously adopted court ceremonial from these two empires in an attempt to expand the tribal power base of the first four Umayyad caliphs and to assume a monarchic authority. At Qasr 'Amra, such political maneuverings take on a concrete form.

In any case, the paintings, some of the earliest still surviving, have an important place in the history and development of Islamic art. Furthermore, the bathhouse complex itself has such an intimate character that the frescoes also vividly reflect for us, 1,200 years later, the life style of an eighth-century Arab prince.

Patricia Baker, an authority on Islamic art and architecture, lectures at universities, colleges and art schools in England and serves regularly as an international consultant in her field.

This article appeared on pages 22-25 of the July/August 1980 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1980 images.